Bembridge to Belgium single-handed: July 2014

'East Breeze' at Blankenberge, SE of Zeebruge Photo: Marion Shirley
‘East Breeze’ at Blankenberge, SE of Zeebruge Photo: Marion Shirley

Single-handed skipper of ‘East Breeze’ shares a report of her crossing from Bembridge, Isle of Wight to Blankenberge in Belgium on her recently rebuilt Tamarisk 22, ‘East Breeze’. After taking shelter in Shoreham and crossing from Dover to Dunkerque, she’ll be joining the 2014 ‘gathering of gaffers’ from the Netherlands and UK for the Dutch 10th Anniversary Cross Country Tour.

In France, asked about single-handing, I said, ‘Il n’ya personne a discuter mais aussi ni personne a disputer.’ Either my French, or the sentiment, produced laughter.

I have relatively few photographs and here’s why. Leaving Dover, I saw the white cliffs, recognised an iconic moment, left the autopilot in charge and reached for the camera. Too late, a pair of large fishing pot markers appeared and bob, bob, scrape, scrape later, the boat stopped. To cut a long story short, they eventually popped away.

I have never yet failed, somehow and eventually, to fetch up on a mooring, often with the help of friendly bystanders. ‘East Breeze’, virtually rebuilt in the spring, attracts a lot of appreciative comment. With ‘Apps’ such as Boat Beacon, marina Wifi and three internet-ready devices on board, I am never far from friendly comment or advice. The Solent contingent of 11 boats, on passage for the Netherlands with three single-handers, keeps in touch by email. I navigate with a Garmin GPS 128 and, of course, a full set of paper charts. This season I have Imray charts on an iPad1 but tend, so far, to use this only to locate positions and record my track.

I left from our Solent Bembridge rally on 6 July 2014. New to me is time and tide over longer distances in ‘East Breeze’. On the first day, cowed by what I had read about the tides off Selsey Bill, flat calm when I got there, I covered 38 miles before the wind blew up strongly from behind. ‘East Breeze’ was overpowered, I had to fight the sails to drop them and motor into Shoreham. Fitted with corner posts during her spring rebuild, I see that I could have dropped spars and mainsail between them, without fear of everything going overboard, rather than partnering a crazy boom and gaff in a dance on the coach roof.

The following day, after some sail repairs, I started with a blissful sail. I reckon on an average boat speed of four and a half knots in ‘East Breeze’, a Tamarisk 22. Managing a lock on one’s own can be challenging but, as in mooring, a long bow-line which can be handled from the cockpit, works well.

The lock at Sovereign Harbour emits creepy Jack Sparrowesque creaks and groans. With a series of unpleasant weather forecasts, I was keen to get to Rye and so locked out the following afternoon. To port, loomed a vast expanse of dark grey cloud. It reminded me of the return from last year’s Bembridge Rally, when we experienced unannounced, a 30 knot squall. I returned in the next lock. In the event, there was a shower of rain, a little wind and a fine evening, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I never did get to Rye, although Hastings by bus made a good day out.

I eventually elected to make the 47 mile trip to Dover on Friday 11 July. The visibility was so poor that I made a point of plotting positions on the chart every hour, rather than merely writing them in the log book. It was not a day to cross the Channel. My ocean rated HPX jacket, the perfect garment for small boat sailing, came into its own. The day started with a hoolie, requiring a second reef, and ended with four hours of motoring after the wind died.

I expected more of the same in Dover. Two bigger OGA boats arrived, reporting blustery conditions but, on Monday morning, there was my window; a reasonable forecast and I could see France. I retrieved my wet washing and dried it that evening in Dunkerque. I had been wary of the separation scheme but found that with the sea room, the ships did not present the problems that they do round the Bramble Bank in The Solent. ‘East Breeze’ skipped along, heeled over as much as she ever does, ducked and dived across the waves like a dolphin and I turned away from the wind and tide slightly earlier than I should have done.

Another day and I am in Blankenberge in Belgium after a sail from Dunkerque with everything up. It was so thrilling that I even steered the boat myself rather than leaving it to the auto pilot.

People frequently tell me that I must be very brave. It is a week until the rally and then there are 250 miles home to consider. Will it be night sailing and a longer crossing (I will have crew), or a return coastal passage through the Rotterdam shipping, with shorter daylight hours and, perhaps, less favourable winds? I reply, ‘Either that or very stupid.’ We shall see.